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'Happy Jack' remembered for his dynamic personality

April 30, 2006|By MARLO BARNHART

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va.

A friendly beer offered in a parking lot in Williamsport nearly 23 years ago was the beginning of a personal and professional alliance between firefighters from three states that has had a wide impact on volunteer firefighting improvements well beyond those borders.

The glue that held that special relationship together and kept it growing for nearly a quarter of a century was Gary "Happy Jack" Easton, former chief of the Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Co., who died April 20 at the age of 60.

Steve Austin, past president of the Delaware Volunteer Firemen's Association, said it was at the end of a Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen's Association parade on a hot summer night when Gary offered Steve and his firefighters from Newark, Del., and others from Halfway that frosty symbol of friendship.

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"We'd never met before," Steve said by telephone from Indianapolis, where he was attending an exposition of new firefighting equipment. "We all got to know each other, and it's been a bond that has lasted 23 years."

That night, those volunteer firefighters joined forces to strengthen the Cumberland Valley group to which they all belonged by providing better education and training for their members.

"Without Gary, none of that would have happened," Steve said. "We all believed in the brotherhood of the fire department, and hundreds of friendships have come about from that."

Gary's widow, Linda, and their son, G.W. Easton, said there were firefighters in attendance at the April 24 funeral from New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as from Hagerstown, Hancock and Halfway.

The hearse was a firetruck that passed beneath the traditional crossed ladders of two other trucks as Gary was laid to rest, Linda said. He was buried in his signature "Happy Jack" T-shirt.

"Gary was the only honorary member of the Aetna Fire Department in Delaware in its 118-year history," said Halfway Fire Chief Jeff Ringer, who also was contacted by telephone at the Indianapolis equipment show.

Ringer said that when he was a young fire chief in the late 1980s, Gary gave him a piece of advice he never forgot.

"He said family is No. 1, job is No. 2 and the fire department is No. 3," Ringer said.

The current chief of the Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Co. said he learned a lot from Gary, who was his first chief when he joined in 1982.

"Gary got that nickname, Happy Jack, because he was always happy," Todd Ruppenthal said.

A Marine, Gary saw combat in the Vietnam War.

"At home in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, he served his community as a dynamic fire service leader," said Doug DeHaven, veteran firefighter with the Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway. "Under his command, the Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Department made considerable progress."

Gary also dramatically changed Linda's life in 1974 when they married.

"Gary had worked with my first husband at T.H. Compton Trucking Co.," Linda said.

After her first husband died in an automobile accident, Linda began baby-sitting for Gary's two children while he worked.

Except for a brief stint at a Hagerstown trucking company, Gary was employed with U.S. Silica in Berkeley Springs for 30 years.

Linda said she was pregnant with her first husband's child when he was killed. After Gary and Linda married, they then had one child together, their son, G.W.

Active in firefighting at an early age, at 35, Gary was the youngest fire chief ever in Berkeley Springs, Linda said.

"He loved firefighting with a passion," she said.

Although G.W. didn't follow in his father's firefighting footsteps, he said he spent a lot of time at the fire hall when he was a youngster. With his father fighting fires and his mother working with the auxiliary, the fire hall was like a second home.

"Then, when the fires were over, they would all come here to relax," G.W. said of the Easton home on Harrison Avenue. "There was always a keg on ice in the garage - it was nothing for me to wake up at 3 a.m. and find a truckload of people in that garage."

With his health failing, Gary was unable to attend last year's Cumberland Valley convention in McConnellsburg, Pa., Steve said.

"We took three van loads of people to Gary's house to see him," Steve said. "He was on oxygen then, but he was so glad to see us."

And it all started with that friendly beer so many years ago.

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